Serena and Ana Pull Out, Plus other Doha Details

Both Serena Williams and Ana Ivanovic pulled out of the Sony Ericsson Championships Friday. Ivanovic has been suffering from a virus since she arrived in Doha, while Serena cited a stomach strain for her withdrawal. I’d be naïve to say this surprises me, as the season-ending championships on both the ATP and WTA tours have been plagued for years by no-shows and sudden (and suspect) exits. To me, they are little more than glorified exhibitions. I guess that’s why the WTA brings not one but two alternates for the year-end tournament. Lace them up, Agnieszka Radwanska and Nadia Petrova!

         


Ivanovic clearly had been ailing from something since she got here. Her play was uninspired and she took medical timeouts for dizziness in both of her two matches. Serena said she felt nothing in her loss to Venus last night but that her stomach began to hurt when she returned to the hotel. Serena had a similar stomach injury in the 2004 championships, when she gamely played a third set in which she could barely serve before falling to Maria Sharapova. That was then.


I actually watched the 27-year-old American warm up a bit this evening and while she wasn’t pushing it into the corners to retrieve balls, she looked fit enough to play. Considering that the players are treated like royalty here, sponsors have put up millions and fans have purchased tickets, I think the players have a responsibility to show up and play, even if they are a little banged up. After all, six to eight weeks of offseason await them. Ivanovic was at least contrite about her withdrawal, but she doesn’t totally get off the hook. She’s here. She should play unless she really is threatening her long-term health.


Serena, on the other hand, would have none of it. She was completely dismissive and frankly unpleasant in her press conference, showing an ugly side that smacked of indifferent petulance. Herewith is her exchange with a reporter that legitimately asked about her duty to the tournament:


Q.  Do you not think occasionally that you have to play through the pain barrier at a big tournament like this one so as not to let the sponsors down or the WTA down? 

SERENA WILLIAMS:  Yeah, you know. I think what I should do, I should make you workout for  how old am I  so for like 22 years and make you have a severe stomach strain, and then tell you to play for the sponsors, and, yeah. So, that's kind of how it works. You should try it. 


Q.  I think I would if I was here among the elite 8 in the world. 

SERENA WILLIAMS:  Well, then you really should. And you should go for it. You should live your dream (laughing). I encourage you. 



For all Serena’s admirable qualities, and there are many – her fighting spirit, her occasional can’t-help-myself candor, her ability to make fun of herself – she too often crosses the line between empowerment and entitlement. She also is an ungracious loser. Consider her comments after last night’s loss to Venus, her beloved older sister:


“I don't think I've ever played like that. I mean, I've never been in a situation where I just feel like I can't do anything…Today I couldn't serve, I couldn't hit a backhand, I couldn't hit a forehand, I couldn't even volley.”


She went on to say: “This is definitely the worst match I've played this year by far. I didn't even look like a top-8 player today.  Maybe top 600 -- in the juniors.”


So as Serena closes the door on a fine season – four titles, a ninth major at the U.S. Open – her media skills leave something to be desired. The upshot for the tournament is that Elena Dementieva qualifies for the semifinals and plays the loser of the Jelena Jankovic-Vera Zvonareva match, which is going on as I write.


Now, on to other topics: I read an un-bylined story in the English language Gulf Times that discussed a huge poster at the back of the Khalifa Tennis complex depicting the eight championships qualifiers in faceless silhouettes. The WTA Tour spends millions promoting the sexiness of its stars, but apparently that doesn't fly in Doha. The article said that tournament organizers were originally sent photos of the women in tennis clothes, but that they decided to use computer manipulation to conceal their thighs. The same images were used in posters around the city, rather than the classic advertising posters with actual pictures of the tour’s gaggle of stars.


Tournament director Karim Alami was quoted as saying: "Since it was the month of Ramadan, we met and we decided that it was better to have silhouettes and not to show players' legs and arms. We thought we had to adapt to the country and respect habits and religion."

Qatar has opened itself to the West in recent years, but a woman in skirts apparently goes too far. I wandered out this evening to snap a photo of it and the building-high poster had been taken down. I asked an official why and he said he didn’t know.


In the lounge area, I ran into second alternate Petrova, the always pleasant, multilingual player from Russia. Petrova won a tour event in Quebec City last Sunday and then jetted to Doha, where she arrived Tuesday night. As I was standing there, one of the WTA operatives came up and asked her if she wanted to do a bit of commentary from the booth. She agreed, so I asked her if she had done any TV announcing before, and she said she hadn't. That led, of course, to Anastasia Myskina, the 2004 French Open champ who has been reporting on soccer for Russian TV. "What does she know of football?" Petrova laughed. Now that she’s been called into by tonight’s pullouts, her TV debut will be delayed.


If there is any doubt about who's funding this event it's quite clear from the on-court signage. On the two backstops, Sony Ericsson has the largest wording, but on either side of it are the next biggest sponsor names: "Commercial Bank of Qatar", and "Qatar". Since Qatar is the government, and since the Commercial Bank of Qatar is likely owned by the government, it’s pretty clear who is pulling the purse strings here.




On Thursday, I wrote a sports cover story in USA Today on the status of American player development. I had the chance to ask super-enthusiastic tennis legend Billie Jean King -- after whom the USTA National Tennis Center at Flushing, N.Y., is named - her thoughts on the topic. King had come to Doha for a UNESCO-WTA announcement in which she was named a "global mentor for global equality" (whatever that means). UNESCO and the WTA established a partnership in 2006.


King didn't sound too optimistic on the USTA's latest efforts to revamp the elite development program, which she has consulted on in the past. "I don't know what's going on yet. I don't know enough. But unless they keep this for 10 years, it's got no chance. I keep telling the USTA, "You cannot keep changing every two years. You cannot. That's always my question. Are you going to leave it alone long enough to let it have some impact?”


King also emphasized a common explanation for sagging U.S. fortunes: globalization, and young American kids playing team sports. “It’s a reflection of the world and the competition,” she said. “If you go back to the old days, when we were winning big, we were only playing against Australia, Britain. We weren't playing against the whole world. That is the difference. And kids still want to be in team sports first.”


Because King flew to Qatar on Tuesday night she knew Obama had won but didn't know all the results of the election. I informed her that the anti-gay marriage Prop 8 had lost. She seemed, understandably, appalled.


If you happened to read this far, I will also point you to my second blog on Tennis.com.

 

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